Myths and Legends of the Ancient World

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The Sorrow of Brynhild*

Retold by Jenny Bennett
The fire burnt low in the hearth but the servant women made no move to add fuel to it.

They sat around their mistress in complete silence, their faces pale and strained and their hands trembling as they worked.

Gundrun looked up, her gaze falling first upon one then another of the faces that surrounded her. She shook her head and threw her work down upon the floor angrily.

“What is the matter with all of you?!” she demanded. “Look at you all! Can you not smile and be lively instead of sitting there like a bunch of dead women without so much as a word or a hum from anyone all day?!”

The maids had looked up when their mistress had first started to speak then lowered their eyes again and tried to continue their work, but their fingers trembled even more violently than before and more than one lost grip of their spindle. 

“Answer me!” Gundrun cried. “What is the matter with all of you?”

“My lady,” the eldest of the servants said quietly. She was a woman who had cared for Gundrun since she was born and whose jet black hair was now streaked with silver. “My lady, we are sorry for offending you with our silence but a dark cloud has fallen upon our home and it is difficult for anyone to be cheerful when it casts such a dark shadow upon us.”

“A cloud? Shadows? What do you mean?” the princess asked with narrowed eyes.

“Trouble has come to your family, Mistress, and even we, who are merely servants, feel it deeply.”

Gundrun shook her head.

“You speak of Brynhild, don’t you?” she said. “Yes, I know she has been upset since our little quarrel at the river, but she will get over it, I have no doubt. Anyway, why should we all be miserable on her account?”

The old servant sighed and shook her head.

“You are very young, My Lady,” she said sadly. “And I fear your hasty words to your sister-in-law will lead to more trouble than you anticipate. Brynhild, after all is not an ordinary woman.”

“She tried to tell me that my husband was not worth anything compared to hers! She even waded out much deeper into the river to show that she is better than me! Was I to stay silent and accept the insult without a word? You forget that I was born a princess while she married far above her station and was a mere shield-maiden before she became my brother’s wife.”

“I am not blaming you, Princess,” the servant said quickly. “You could not help but take offense at Lady Brynhild’s behaviour. But you cannot deny that since that incident, things have not been the same in our home. For many days afterwards, the burg and the mountains beyond echoed with her lamentations. Even when all other slept, her voice was lifted in sorrow.”

“Yes well she has stopped now,” Gundrun replied. “It has been a week since her awful cries stopped. She has finally managed to get a grip on herself and come to terms with the fact that she was tricked by Sigurd and Gunnar and that there is nothing she can do about it now.”

“I don’t think she has calmed down, Mistress,” another servant said, wide eyed. “She has been sleeping for seven days without once waking, and nobody dares to go near her. The last servant who intruded upon her sorrow was picked up bodily and thrown out of the door with great force. She is terribly, terribly strong.”

“And her husband? Does he also fear her?” Gundrun asked in disbelief.

“He has not gone near her since the day she came back from the river and confronted him about his part in the treachery against her.”

“Then I will go to Brynhild,” Gundrun said, rising to her feet. “I will go to her and speak with her. And I will bring her down to the mead hall where we shall all feast and dance and be merry together.”

“You will do no such thing,” the voice of Gunnar, her brother, came from the doorway, and the women looked up to see him stand there; ashen faced and much thinner than they remembered him to be. 

“Brother!” Gundrun said in surprise.

“You will not make things worse than they already are by going to see my wife,” he said without meeting her eye. “I forbid you to see her. You have done enough damage already.”

And with that, he turned around and left Gundrun staring after him with tears in her eyes.

Gunnar made his way out into the stables to his horses. He had spent a lot of time with them since the quarrel with his wife two weeks ago. He even preferred sleeping in an empty stall beside them to sleeping in the great house which Brynhild had filled with her sorrow. Every corner, every wall, even the rushes upon the floor seemed to be weighed down with her grief. As for their chambers in their wing of the large building. Why he dare not look at it from the safety of the stables, let alone visit it!

“Is it true?” Brynhild had demanded, her fierce eyes locked on his. “Is it true that you did not have the courage to ride through my wall of flames? Is it true that you and Sigurd tricked me into marrying you?”

“What are talking about Brynhild?” he had replied, feeling the blood rush from his face.

“Look! You turn pale!” Brynhild had cried. “And you tremble before me! Coward! Admit it!”

“It isn’t true Brynhild!” he had replied, taking a step back and looking at the door. “I rode through the fiery wall to woo you. You saw me with your own eyes!”

“Then show me the ring I gave you before you left my castle,” she demanded. 

“The r...ring?” he had stammered. “What ring?”

“The ring of gold that Sigurd gave to me when we swore our oaths to one another. The ring from Fafnir’s treasure that I then gave to you when you had won my promise to wed you. Where is it?”

“I do not have it,” Gunnar had answered, lowering his eyes. He did not know what Brynhild was speaking of. After all, it had been Sigurd, disguised as him, who had ridden through the wall of fire to find Brynhild. 

“You don’t have it because I never gave it to you, did I?” Brynhild had continued. “It was Sigurd who came to me, wasn’t it? Disguised as you by your witch-mother, he came to me and I gave him my ring. The ring which he then gave to his pathetic wife. I saw it upon her finger at the river! The ring I had given to pledge myself to the man who rode through my fire.”

Her eyes were blazing now and her face transformed by rage.

“You are not that man! Are you? Coward! COWARD!” she screamed. Arms raised she advanced towards him, her face a mask of fury. She was almost upon him when the king’s soldiers rushed into the room and tried to restrain her. 

“I will kill you! You coward! You treacherous snake!” she cried, beside herself with rage. And from the look in her eyes, Gunnar knew that she meant every word. With incredible strength, the woman threw off the two men who had taken hold of her and it took half a dozen of them a lot of effort to finally pin her arms to her sides and keep her from injuring the prince.

King Hogni entered the room and looked at the raging woman in amazement.

“You would kill my son and heir, Brynhild?” he asked quietly. 

“He is a coward!” she spat. “Not worthy to be a prince! Treacherous coward! It was not him I swore to marry. He never saw me until the day I rode into your burg. It was Sigurd who wooed me. Sigurd in this coward’s form!”

“Is this true, Gunnar?” the king asked with raised eyebrows. He had been kept in the dark about the trick that had been played to win Brynhild for his son. The Queen had insisted upon it knowing well that the king would disapprove of something so dishonourable.

The prince nodded and fixed his eyes upon the floor.

At that, Brynhild let out a bloodcurdling scream and broke free from the men who held her. Had the rest of the king’s guard not surrounded the prince and pushed him out to the safety of the hallway, the woman would have torn him apart with her bare hands: so intense was her rage. When the soldiers had finally managed to restrain her, the king ordered them to put her in fetters.

“She will kill my son if she is not chained. She is like a wild beast in her anger!” he said to them. Outside, he confronted his heir with a frown.

“You resorted to your mother’s dark arts to win her,” he said sadly. “Did you not think the truth would be revealed eventually? And now we must all suffer the consequences of your treachery. I cannot believe that Sigurd would ever consent to such a thing! I thought him a better man.”

And so Gunnar had fled to the stables, afraid to approach his wife. Ashamed to be seen by his father in his disgrace. Now, back in the stables, he threw himself upon the hay and wept.

What would become of Gunnar, the son of King Hogni? And what of Brynhild the shield-maiden? Would she have her revenge upon the men who had tricked her? We will find out next time...

*Based on the Volsunga Saga

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